Water bills going up, how much and why

jwise@newsobserver.comMay 12, 2014 

  • Notes on fees

    Durham instituted a “tiered” system of water-sewer fees in 2008 which, in essense, charges higher rates the more water a customer uses. Most residential customers – 63 percent – fall into Tier 3, using 500 to 800 cubic feet of water every month.

    The current Tier 3 water rate is $2.88 per 100 cubic feet; the sewer rate is $3.75 per 100 cubic feet. Water and sewer services charges are the same for all tiers: $6.15 water and $7.02 sewer.

    According to Water Management Director Don Greeley, the average Durham water-sewer bill is $45.61 a month, higher than Charlotte’s $42.65 but lower than Raleigh’s $47.21 and OWASA’s $83.53.

    Stormwater fees are tiered as well, according to the customer’s impervious surface – i.e., surface water runs off of rather than soaking into.

    Durham has about 71,000 stormwater accounts, 82 percent of them residential in Tiers 1 and 2 – less than 4,000 square feet. Non-residential accounts make up 9 percent of the total, but their much higher average rate, $122.12 a month, accounts for 69 percent of stormwater fee income.

    According to public works Assistant Director Paul Wiebke, Durham’s Tier 1 rate, $3.03, is more than Raleigh’s $2.90, less than Charlotte’s $6.98, and much less than the $10.37 homeowners in Norfolk, Va., are charged.

— If you get your water from the city, you’re going to be paying more for it a few months from now.

There are three main reasons why:

•  Water, sewer and drainage systems wear out; some of Durham’s pipelines are more than 100 years old.

•  A growing city has a growing need for water.

•  Falls and Jordan lakes.

To handle those, which include building for the future and making up for years and years of neglected maintenance, the city’s water and public works departments figure they need to take in about $390 million over the next five fiscal years: July 2014 through June 2019.

For a typical household, that means about $2 more a month after June: $1.53 for water and sewer service, 47 cents for the stormwater fee (which is billed once a year unless the customer asks for monthly or every other month).

Overall, the water-sewer rates are going up 3 percent, stormwater fee 7.5 percent. Exactly what those mean to customers depends, in the case of water-sewer, how much water they use; in the case of stormwater, on how much impervious surface (paved driveways, rooftops) they own.

Those figures aren’t official until the City Council approves them. Votes are scheduled Monday night, and council members had some questions, few comments and no objections when water Director Don Greeley and public works Assistant Director Paul Wiebke presented the figures at last week’s work session. The rate hikes were expected – and will be again next year.

Actually, if current plans and expectations hold there will be similar votes for at least five years to come, because three years ago the council figured that small price hikes every year would be more palatable and easier for citizens to absorb than a couple of big hikes all at once.

“Then,” Greeley said, “we’ll be faced more with the status quo.”

The shapes of fees to come

Greeley’s projections for water-sewer rates show a 3.3 percent increase next year – fiscal 2016 – followed by:

•  3.4 percent in FY 2017

•  4.5 percent in FY 2018

•  4.8 percent in FY 2019.

Similarly, public works Assistant Director Paul Wiebke’s stormwater rate projections show another 7.5 percent rise next year, followed by:

•  6.5 percent in FY 2017

•  6 percent in FY 2018

•  3 percent in FY 2019.

Over the next five years, Greeley’s and Wiebke’s charts show the hikes bringing in roughly $40 million more than keeping current rates would produce. In that time, the water department is relying on total fee revenue of about $445 million; stormwater, about $83 million.

“Not all of that is needed for new projects. Two-thirds of water-sewer fees pay for the water management department’s operations, including employee pay.

The stormwater fee pays public works’ cost to handle the water that runs off into the storm drains, and with the chemicals it picks up and carries into streams and reservoirs.

Those planned rate hikes should cover running the systems and completing major projects programmed or in progress, such as this year’s downtown water main replacements and stream engineering to filter pollutants out of runoff.

More projects, though, are looming farther out: expanding Durham’s capacity to draw water from Jordan Lake, which the city is depending on to serve the city’s growth, and whatever demands come along to clean up and protect the Jordan and Falls reservoirs.

Down the drain

Some of the water department’s money goes to purify and distribute the water Durham drinks, but much of it is going, like stormwater’s, to purify what goes down the drains.

Water quality and regulations meant to protect it are a major drivers in fee increases. The stormwater fee took effect in 1995, at about $3.50 a month for the majority of residential customers. Growth and toughened standards have pushed that same customer’s charge over $6 now; a homeowner with more than 4,000 impervious square feet pays almost $13.

Both the water department and public works now contend with tough new standards coming into force for Falls Lake – fed by all the city’s streams north of a ridge across the center of Durham County – and anticipated for Jordan Lake – fed by all the city’s streams to its south.

Higher rates are meant, in part, to service debt on compliance measures, and debt is scheduled to got up with bond issues in 2016 and 2018.

State legislators put the Jordan Lake Rules on hold for three years in order to try an experimental water-cleaning process that may or may not work. The first stage of Falls Lake Rules are in force; a second stage remains in the future, far more expensive, stringent and controversial and of far more concern to City Hall.

“The Stage Two rules won’t go away,” Wiebke said. “But probably will be revised down. ... The rates (proposed) do not reflect implementation of Stage Two or implementation of the Jordan Rules.”

City Councilman Eugene Brown has been a consistent critic of the costs that state and federal authorities have imposed on Durham and other cities to meet standards they set, without offering money to help pay for it.

“All of us around this table have environmental concerns,” Brown said. “But we also have budget concerns as well.”

The water department is “watching the regulations closely,” Greeley said.

“Our strategy is, in dealing with all of these rules and making these improvements, we are making the most cost-effective improvements first, (to) see how they impact how we handle wastewater,” he said.

“We want to make sure our rates are affordable, and that they’re fair and equitable.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

Durham News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service